In the News

Extinction Rebellion 2022

Mike McCartney

8th April 2022

Lots of examples of direct action pressure group activity

News has come in this morning that activists from Extinction Rebellion (XR) have blocked traffic at Tower Bridge in Central London by abseiling over the side of the bridge in order to hang an "end fossil fuels banner" banner. This is something of an aperitif ahead of a planned schedule of protest over Easter.

I'd be surprised if you've never heard of XR, but this is a reminder of their cause/aims:

"Our demands are rooted in love, care and a fundamental commitment to climate justice. The effects of the emergency are being felt now, and will continue to be disproportionately suffered by those who have done least to cause the crises. In the UK, we bear a particular responsibility to the Global Majority, and acknowledge and support the incredible work of the many organisations specialising in the specific issues related to justice." (From the XR website.)

Details of XR's planned nine days of civil disobedience can also be found online here: https://extinctionrebellion.uk...

Last year over 500 arrests were made over a similar time period, so expect lots of examples of activity to unfold that students can weave into their exam answers on the pressure groups topic, or wider questions about democracy in the UK.

So where do XR fit in? Well, the question of whether pressure groups strengthen or weaken democracy is an old chestnut.

These are typical arguments for and against.

The following points could be seen as ways in which pressure groups enhance democracy.

  • Pressure groups could be seen as a way in which power is dispersed rather than being concentrated in the hands of a small elite.
  • Pressure groups are a vital part of ‘civil society’, that section of society that creates a ‘buffer’ between citizens and the state and ensures democratic controls over the power of government.
  • Pressure groups act as crucial channels of communication between people and government. They express public opinion, transmit public demands and express public attitudes to issues.
  • Many pressure groups represent minority groups in society.
  • The decline in the importance and status of parties in recent times has made the representative role of pressure groups especially significant.

The following points could be seen as ways in which pressure groups can be seen as undemocratic.

  • Pressure groups are not accountable, unlike Parliament and governments.
  • Many pressure groups may have political influence which is well beyond their significance in society, e.g. because of wealth (industry groups).
  • Related to the last factor, some wealthy groups may gain undemocratic influence by funding political parties.
  • Some pressure groups may not be internally democratic so their political demands may not represent accurately the views of their members.
  • Groups which temporarily capture the public imagination may create a climate for policy making which may not be democratically determined and may not be rational.
  • Ultimately pressure group activity may have raised awareness amongst the public and possibly affected public policy at the margins, but “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” (Schattschneider).

So what about direct action?

Direct action can take several forms, but at its purest it is when a group seeks to address the issue at hand directly rather than seek to influence policy makers by more traditional forms of protest such as lobbying.

An American research institute has identified a total of 198 methods of non-violent action. Wyn Grant’s typology consists of a more manageable six main forms: protest marches; boycotts; stunts; blockades, occupations and other disruption; destruction of property; violence against individuals.

Why direct action?

The story of political participation in the twentieth century is one where political parties dominated the first half, and pressure groups the second. And during the 1990s the dominant narrative was that of the sudden explosion of ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) style protests. Of course, direct action is nothing new; one thinks here of the Diggers in the mid-seventeenth century. However, what was novel was the range and popularity of non-violent direct activity (NVDA), from the cuddly images of elderly ladies forming protest lines against live veal exports at Shoreham and Brightlingsea, to the more hard-edged actions of activists who sought to stop expansion of Manchester Airport, or when what were originally intended to be peaceful protests by Extinction Rebellion turned violent in central London.

The growth of direct action is the consequence of perceived failings by more established groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace in the environmental sphere. Their critics would argue that they have become too institutionalised in a bid to win favour with the government. NVDA therefore fills the vacuum left by groups that have altered their tactics. The shift towards DIY politics can also be viewed in terms of a search for empowerment on the behalf of protestors. In an era of globalisation, people feel increasingly marginalised and mainstream politics doesn’t satisfy their needs. Getting out and doing something helps people express their political identity in a way that letter writing doesn’t, or possibly couldn’t.

Often we see that direct action may not effect significant policy change, but it is often the preserve of groups who are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to campaign by traditional means.

So watch of for more attention grabbing stunts of over the coming weeks from XR, probably the most high profile direct action group around.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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